The metagame on the ranked ladder changes rapidly, so you always need to tweak your deck to match what you are facing the most of. Most decks have a main plan they are devoted to executing and a few flex slots that they can adjust: a Vanquish here, a Protect there. Control decks, however, are mostly reactive and have a lot of room to play with their answer cards. Most of the deck is flex slots!
I’m going to focus on tech decisions for the two main shells of control that currently exist: the Combrei shell and the Feln shell.
The immutable slots in the Combrei shell are four each of Desert Marshal, Combrei Healer, Knight-Chancellor Siraf, Sandstorm Titan, and Harsh Rule. You can splash another faction or two if you add Find the Way and/or Amber Acolyte, as well. This shell gives you a lot of great blockers and the ability to pressure relic weapons, so it is naturally better against Rakano and Armory. The flex slots are mostly in what removal you play; those depend on which faction(s) you splash. With Find the Way’s great influence fixing, the sky is the limit!
The Feln control shell is four copies of Lightning Storm, Wisdom of the Elders, Feln Bloodcaster, and Black-Sky Harbinger; as well as 3 or 4 each of Withering Witch and Steward of the past. As with Combrei, the flex slots are in what removal you want to play. With Feln you also have more flexibility in your finishers, with anything from Azindel’s Gift to Champion of Cunning to The Last Word seeing play at times.
The most important part of making your tech decisions is picking answer cards that overlap with the matchups you’re facing most. To make this easier for you, I’ve compiled a (non-exhaustive) list of commonly played cards to tech against popular archetypes.
Time: Scorpion Wasp, Lumen Defender (and other deadly units),
Primal: Lightning Strike (to kill both early units and relic weapons), Lightning Storm
Shadow: Annihilate, Suffocate
Justice: Auric Runehammer, Vanquish, Valkyrie Enforcer
Permafrost is alright against Rakano, but you have to live in constant fear of Deepforged Plate when the opponent has a stunned unit in play. Valkyrie Enforcer can also free a Permafrosted unit, but at the cost of its abilities. Lightning Strike isn’t the best since the units you are killing still get a warcry trigger, but the ability to answer Sword of Icaria is necessary for decks like Feln control that don’t have many units to block. The best possible cards against Rakano are deadly units that can’t be Vanquished, as the Rakano player will have to expend a Finest Hour or Torch to break through and still have their unit die. Deadly and relic weapons also both ignore aegis so you don’t get 2-for-1’ed.
Time: Lumen Defender
Primal: Permafrost, Eilyn’s Favor, Mistveil Drake, Lightning Storm (if they are Queen Burn and have more 1-drops), Backlash
Shadow: Deathstrike, Touch of the Umbren
Justice: Vanquish, Throne Warden, Auric Runehammer
Multi-faction: Feeding Time (if they are big burn with lots of Umbren Reapers), Champion of Cunning (or other big aegis units they can’t easily burn or race)
Stonescar has no way to remove Permafrost, so it is just a 1 power hard removal spell against any unit, which is obviously great. You usually won’t have enough closing speed to beat Stonescar Burn without some health gain, so threats that provide some incidental health like Throne Warden, Mistveil Drake or Umbren Reaper are excellent. With Eilyn’s Favor, it is important to save it for the point will it will block a lot of damage. If you don’t need the Primal Sigil early on, save the Favor so the aegis doesn’t get popped by 1 damage from an Argenport Instigator trigger or an Obliterate on your 5 health unit.
Primal: Lightning Storm, Permafrost
Shadow: Suffocate, Annihilate
Anything that costs more than 2 and isn’t a blocker is pretty bad against Queen. Relic weapons are also bad because they usually only kill a 1/1 or 2/1 and then are destroyed by the opponent’s wide board. Generally a Lightning Storm followed up by a blocker or two Lightning Storms are enough to ruin a Jito player’s day.
Primal: Lightning Storm
Fire: Furnace Mage and other relic removal
Multi-faction: The Great Parliament, Champion of Cunning
Traditional control game plans are just atrocious against Shimmerpack; even Lightning Storm is only good until they get to 8 power, and even then you have to use it early just in case the opponent plays a second Xenan Obelisk. Even hard sweepers like Harsh Rule and Withering Witch + Lightning Storm are pretty ineffective, since eventually the opponent will start dropping 2-power 5/5s that draw a card and playing multiple 6/6+ units with one card. Every deck I play is bad against Shimmerpack, basically. J
The only way to consistently win against Shimmerpack is to apply pressure with large flying units and save spot removal for Sandstorm Titan. Units with abilities that work outside of combat are also good, as Shimmerpack generally can’t kill your units outside of Scorpion Wasp and maybe Predatory Carnosaur. As such, cards like Statuary Maiden, Mystic Ascendant, and Siraf are a good way to keep pace with the Shimmerpack deck after you sweep away their early units.
Shadow: Annihilate, Deathstrike, Azindel’s Gift, The Last Word, Touch of the Umbren
Multifaction: Feeding Time
Big Combrei is the first slower deck I’ve talked about. Slower matchups are less about having the perfect deck composition and more about allocating your removal properly. You will have time to draw more cards, so you have the luxury of not answering everything perfectly right away. Even cards that aren’t at their best here, like Permafrost (which can be silenced off), can find some use (like against a Siraf, whose 3/4 body will usually be irrelevant by the time it is silenced off). If your deck can afford them and, the best plan against Big Combrei is Azindel’s Gift followed by The Last Word, which they basically can’t stop. Touch of the Umbren can be silenced off by one of Combrei’s many silences, but if you use it to steal a Siraf or Mystic Ascendant they have to have a silence on the spot to not lose the game, and if they do their unit is still mostly handled due to the silence.
If you have the luxury, try to play around Stand Together, especially from more aggressive Combrei decks. If you are all-in on a Harsh Rule and get blown out by Stand Together you will almost certainly lose, so try to go for double Harsh Rule in the same turn if your opponent is conspicuously holding up 3 power.
Time: Scorpion Wasp
Primal: Eye of Winter, card draw, Staff of Stories in particular
Shadow: Azindel’s Gift, Touch of the Umbren, Suffocate
Multi-faction: relic weapons, card draw
Almost all of Feln’s units die to Suffocate, making it the most efficient removal spell you can play. The expensive cards are ways to get multiple cards worth of value out of one card, which you need to do to beat a deck that draws as many cards as Feln. Scorpion Wasp is good because most Feln decks play Champion of Cunning, and Wasp bypasses the Champion’s aegis.
Primal: Lightning Strike, Backlash
Shadow: Azindel’s Gift (if they are playing a slower version with Smuggler’s Stash)
Fire: Furnace Mage and other relic removal, burn spells
Multi-faction: charge units, ambush units
Armory is unique in being one of the only decks that removal of all kinds is awful against. Even most control decks plan to win with units eventually, but armory couldn’t care less if it never has a unit survive. The real tech against armory is just playing 2 units at a time so that they can’t get 2-for-1’s with their weapons. Failing that, you can use ambush units to intercept attacks headed for your important units or use play them at end of turn to get an attack in. You can often punish a relic weapon attack on an empty board by ambushing in a Desert Marshall or Cabal Countess at end of turn and killing the relic weapon without spending a card.
I can show a couple examples of teching a control deck with the evolution of the TJP control deck I’ve been playing off-and-on for the last two seasons. The initial version I built for testing was this:
(At the time, Excavate could leave the void, so it was an inevitable and-game win condition with Elysian Trailblazer)
This was my first draft when I created the deck. The idea was to use the strong Combrei unit base and supplement with some card draw and an end-game engine for control matchups. The deck was a little too slow, however, and the Excavate combo didn’t come together often enough. I cut the too-cute Excavate combo cards and added a little more late-game power to compensate:
The late game cards of choice were Mistveil Drake (to help against Stonescar Burn and Shimmerpack), Mystic Ascendant (Shimmerpack and big Combrei/control), and Channel the Tempest (burn to help finish the game against Shimmerpack and good against control). I adjusted my deck’s top end to better accommodate Shimmerpack and Control, which I was facing a lot of at the time. Ancient Lore came in because I often found myself running out of gas trying to keep up with Shimmerpack in the late game.
Recently, I was facing a lot of Stonescar Burn and Rakano, so I adapted the deck to:
Stronghold’s Visage was replaced with the almost-always-better Throne Warden for health gain, and Auric Runehammer made its way into the deck as a good answer to Rakano’s aegis units and Umbren Reaper. Those two cards even have great synergy with each other, as the extra 4 armor often lets you get three or more attacks off with Auric Runehammer before it breaks!
The bloated top end was also trimmed down to better match up with all of the aggro in ranked, so the Channel the Tempest and Mistveil Drake left the deck, as did the glacially slow Eye of Winter and Ancient Lores. To replace them, all-around all-star Valkyrie Enforcer came in, and I added a second Mystic Ascendant and a Sword of the Sky King to take over games before I could get burned out by Stonescar. I’ve been doing well enough against Stonescar to not need to dip into Permafrosts, as Combrei is still rather popular and Permafrost is rather bad in that matchup, but I could see adding a few over Scorpion Wasp. This deck does get outsized by Sandstorm Titan, so I like having the relatively few removal spells I run be able kill it.
A decklist, especially a control decklist, isn’t something that is set in stone. You need to constantly adapt your deck to better combat what you are playing against, as the mix on ladder changes day-to-day and hour-to hour. You can usually tune your list to beat any two archetypes, so focus on what is important and don’t feel bad if your choices are a little off in an unpopular matchup.
Until next time, may your answers always line up perfectly.